Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker who fearlessly dives into all manner of different genres and is not afraid to play with narrative and character to craft a vision of pure storytelling. This is exactly where he takes audiences with his adaptation of The Whale, a sombre, dramatic and intense emotional watch. And not a dry eye is left in the theatre with the presentation that Aronofsky brings to the screen with this work of art.
In a town in Idaho, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a reclusive and unhealthy English teacher, hides out in his flat and eats his way to death. He is desperate to reconnect with his teenage daughter for a last chance at redemption.
As one of the boldest and original voices still working in modern cinema today, Darren Aronofsky has never been one to shy away from harsh, uncomfortable, distressing or intense subject matter. And with the release of his ninth film, The Whale, audiences are treated to one of the most dramatic, and empathic pieces of cinema ever brought to the big screen. Adapting the critically lauded play by playwright Samuel D. Hunter, Aronofsky dives deep into an intimate and revealing character study of Charlie, a morbidly obese man who makes a living as an online teacher of English composition, and who is nearing the end of his life from excessive overeating caused by the severe pain of a tragic loss. Aronofsky’s lens documents the last days of Charlie’s existence in what is a journey for redemption and hope.
Time and time again, Aronofsky has shown how he is a master of dramatic cinema, and he takes you into the decrepit, cave-like world that Charlie has constructed for himself, even though he is now desperately looking for way to redeem himself. Working with long-time cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky creates a grey, dark and greasy environment, with shades of crisp blues and dark greens that evoke the endless tides of the ocean. Through stylistic lighting, and the cinematic eye of both Aronofsky and Libatique a sense of dream-like ambience charts a clear path back to the prose of Melville’s Moby Dick, a work that has a strong presence in the narrative and which drives part of Charlie’s obsessive characteristics.
Brendan Fraser makes one of the most incredible comebacks of cinematic history with his performance as Charlie in The Whale. This film is both a showcase and tribute to his immense talent and passion for the dramatic arts. Through realistic and detailed prosthetics Fraser leaves his own body and transforms into the morbidly obese shell of Charlie. Dishelved, meaty and bloated, Charlie’s body is a representation of the guilt and sorrow that he feels for his life choices and every action or movement results in an act of pain for him. But while he has let his body go to waste, he’s a learned man possessed of worldly intelligence and is still extremely quick-witted and sharp. Charlie is in a sense an amalgam of both the light and dark choices that we all have to make in life, and he is brought to life with incredible detail thanks to Fraser.
While The Whale is at its core a meditation on the closure of life and the approach of death, Charlie is at his core one of the most optimistic and personable characters to ever grace the screen. Even though he is beset by pain, guilt and sorrow, his passion for life and belief in the true goodness of other people will make your heart flutter. But this joy and light are juxtaposed with a savage and brutal compulsion for gluttony that has essentially destroyed him and when we do witness him undertake a bender, as he literally chokes down any kind of food object within sight, it makes for a deeply traumatic experience. Fraser is in complete control of his performance at every turn as Charlie and his honest and open performance completely pulls in his audience.
Playing off of Fraser’s Charlie is up-and-coming actress Sadie Sink as Ellie, Charlie’s angry, embittered and punkish daughter who finds herself back in her father’s life and offering him one last shot at redemption. Sink portrays Ellie as a raging and messed up teenager who has been left bitter after he walked out on her and her mother so that he could have a relationship with one of his younger male pupils. When she does fall back into his life, she challenges and pokes him. As the story unfolds we get to the heart of the anger that she feels through Charlie’s deep compassion and through this Ellie is able to find her own way to forgive and embrace the light. Sink’s performance in The Whale is fearless and she marks herself as a talent to keep a real eye on.
As a cinematic experience The Whale is a film of pure empathy, and while its subject matter is challenging and certainly not for the faint of heart, there’s a warm and sincere quality that washes over the audience. Even with his pain, failures, and addictions, Brendan Fraser’s Charlie is one of the most positive and life-affirming characters who has ever been brought to the big screen. He’s a character who just naturally sees the goodness in others and in watching this film, audiences will come to completely empathise with his cause and the quest for the light. The Whale is undoubtedly Aronofsky’s most poignant and humanistic film, and even though it can be rough in places, you come to feel a glowing sense of hope from it.
The Whale is a striking watch, and audiences will absolutely get caught up in its immense level of drama. It moves from both polarities of light and dark, but in its closing scenes, you come to truly appreciate how beautiful this piece of cinema is.
Image: MadMan Films